The Cynics, a group of ancient Greek philosophers, were known for flouting convention. Were they just contrarians or does their example offer some wisdom for us today?
“FUCK” is spelled out in large neon letters across the wall. Below, a series of framed selfies show an outstretched arm with the middle finger raised to the White House, the Eiffel Tower, Tiananmen Square and other structures of political and cultural power. The arm belongs to the Chinese dissident artist and political activist Ai Weiwei. I’m in the Albertina Modern, an art museum in the heart of Vienna, which this year put on the biggest retrospective yet of Ai’s work. Much of that work explores how the power structures in question damage people’s lives.
In the next room I watch a long, serpentine sculpture wind along the ceiling. At first I thought of the fun dragons you see at Chinese New Year celebrations. Then I noticed that it was entirely made up of identical backpacks. They represent the scores of school bags that turned up among the rubble after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in southwest China. Among the victims were more than five thousand students buried under school buildings that collapsed due to construction defects. Ai blames them on the neglect and corruption of the local authorities.
In the same room I enter a replica of the prison cell in which Ai was held without charge for 81 days in 2011. I wonder why everything, including the walls, is wrapped in white foam. “To foil suicide attempts,” a sign on the wall explains. Next to it, smaller-scale dioramas offer a peek into Ai’s day-to-day life: he eats, showers, sleeps and sits on the toilet, always with two uniformed guards who monitor him day and night. More recent pieces shine a spotlight on humanitarian crises around the globe—war zones, refugee camps, dinghies full of migrants and more.
The exhibition’s title is “In Search of Humanity,” and the poster shows Ai’s face with a wild gray beard, his fingers pulling his eyes wide open. Humanity, the gesture states, is hard to find when we’re being dehumanized by structures that make us either inflict or suffer damage. But the title and gesture not only take aim at the wrongs of our time. They are also a reference to Diogenes the Cynic, who in plain daylight grabbed a lamp and went out to search for human beings on the crowded marketplace of Athens.
Besides sharing a wild gray beard and the conviction that humanity must be rescued from its deformations, Diogenes and Ai also agree that the best way to do that is through theatrical stunts that jolt us out of our complacency and into awareness of our alienated condition. Already in 1983 the American art critic Thomas McEvilley highlighted the parallel between Cynicism and contemporary activist art. Diogenes, he wrote, turns the city into a stage for his “performance philosophy.”
The morality and lifestyle of the Cynics are one big show of the middle finger to social convention. They are the punks of the ancient world. Princeton University Press’s excellent new anthology of Cynic texts, selected and translated by M. D. Usher, captures that punk spirit in the title: How to Say No: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Cynicism.
The Cynics despise what people normally crave—money, power, fame. For Diogenes of Sinope, the most flamboyant of the ancient Cynics, we were better off as beggars than as billionaires. Like a homeless person, he slept on the doorsteps of public buildings or in an empty barrel. He was sunbathing when Alexander the Great stopped by, curious to meet the eccentric sage. The emperor asked him to wish for whatever he fancied. “Please step aside,” he told Alexander. “You’re blocking the light!” After watching a boy drink from his hands, he threw out his cup. Don’t get weighed down by unnecessary possessions! If the urge overcame him, he ate, masturbated and defecated in public without giving a hoot for screwed-up noses. (When passersby scolded him for jerking off, he replied that he wished he could as easily satisfy his hunger by rubbing his stomach.) He wouldn’t let anyone shut him up. Free speech, he insisted, gave him the right to call out hypocrisy and corruption. Nor did he shy away from insulting the high and mighty (when a wealthy man asked him not to spit on the precious carpets and furniture in his villa, he spat in his face—the only thing, he explained, cheap enough to spit on). He requested that his body be tossed over the city walls after he died. At least it would be useful to wild animals.
Do the Cynics get a kick out of transgression? On the contrary. From where they stand, everyone else is wrong while they are paragons of wisdom and virtue. They saw themselves as the disciples of Socrates. The philosophy they “performed” was a tribute to their master, who tried to wake up his fellow citizens from their moral slumber like a gadfly stinging a sleepy horse. Socrates pestered everyone and anyone: Are you a good person? Did you do the right thing? Without that all your goals are worthless—whether you want to become a doctor or lawyer, get rich and famous, be a good parent or just have a fun night on the town. Don’t run after “wealth, reputation and honors,” he insisted. Instead care for “the best possible state of your soul.” Did his fellow citizens thank him for the wake-up call? No. They sentenced him to death. The ancient quest for the good life was off to a traumatic start.
But even if the Cynics picked up the role of the gadfly, their method was very different from that of Socrates. Where Socrates bet on arguments, they bet on shock therapy. Plato, who saw himself as Socrates’s true heir, dismissed Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad.”
The point of their shock therapy was twofold. They wanted to show that the norms we live by lack all authority. Unlike the laws of nature that are valid always and everywhere, they are mere local customs. And following these customs isn’t morally innocuous. They put us at odds with what the Cynics considered the true norms. Far from just being naysayers and performers of transgression, the Cynics thought they’d discovered a universal moral code. As one text in Usher’s anthology puts it: the real pervert isn’t Diogenes who masturbates in public but the rest of us, who “busy themselves … with the most outrageous behavior, inappropriate to our nature: stealing money, sycophantic conniving, unjust lawsuits, and the pursuit of other rubbish of this sort.”
These days we have plenty of reasons to question the validity of the norms we live by. Socrates’s quest and Diogenes’s antics emerged at a time in ancient Athens that was as morally confused as ours. The civil war with Sparta dragged on for thirty years. A plague killed a quarter of the population. A clique of tyrants laid bare the fragility of democracy. A new breed of intellectuals dismantled religious myths (the sun is a mass of red-hot metal, the philosopher Anaxagoras argued, not the god Helios driving his chariot across the sky). Perhaps most jarringly, the encounter with other cultures undermined ancestral customs. An anonymous contemporary of Socrates amassed heaps of evidence to demonstrate how widely that “which cities and nations consider seemly and shameful” differs. Here is one example from a long list of conflicting norms:
Massagetes cut up their parents and then eat them, and it seems to them an especially seemly form of entombment to be buried inside one’s children. If a person did this in Greece he would be driven out of Greece and die a miserable death for doing things that are shameful and horrible.
Amid the crisis, Plato noted, “the customs and practices of our fathers” were disintegrating at an “amazing speed.” The Sophists—Socrates’s main intellectual opponents—concluded that all norms are relative: conventions of a particular time and place. If the Massagetes believe that it is pious to cut up their dead parents and eat them, then it is pious for them. If the Greeks recoil in horror from that practice, then it is impious for them.
Relativism has contemporary champions, as well: from cultural anthropologists to culture warriors. Their motives are noble. From the British in India to the Americans in Iraq, colonial or imperialist projects are often justified as spreading Western values. But if Western values are parochial, not universal, they can’t justify Western domination. Just as the Greeks have no moral authority to impose their values on the Massagetes, the British have no moral authority to impose theirs on the Indians. The same holds for cultural hegemony within a society. If the cultural canon—the supposedly great books you read in college, for example—expresses not universal values but the preferences of white men, there is no reason why everyone should revere it. But here’s the flaw in the argument: Yes, white men can no longer spin domination as a means of spreading the benefits of universal civilization. But they also no longer have to. If there are no universal standards by which actions are right or wrong, they can simply crush the weaker party without worrying about censure. Sophists like Thrasymachus argue just that: “justice is the advantage of the stronger.” In the absence of universal norms, might is right. In this way, relativism can help pave the way for unscrupulous power grabs.
That’s why Socrates and the Cynics looked for a different way out. Socrates acknowledged the evidence the Sophists collected, but denied the relativist conclusion. Instead he thought he could nail down universal norms through rational examination. Yet his lifelong search in Athens came up empty. He was only wiser than his fellow Athenians because he knew that he knew nothing. He wouldn’t bow to local norms, handed down by tradition, but he didn’t offer a replacement either.
The Cynics thought they had found the answer that eluded Socrates. Don’t look for wisdom in cities or nations—Athens or Sparta, Greece or Persia. Look to nature instead. That’s where the true norms are on display. In the fourth century CE, Emperor Julian “the Apostate”—a lapsed Christian eager to restore paganism—summed up the basic move:
Cynics seek a happiness that arises from living according to Nature, with no deference to the opinions of the multitude. Plants also flourish, as indeed do all the animals, when each one achieves its natural end with no impediments. … Likewise for human beings—we shouldn’t run around looking for happiness as if it lay hidden outside of ourselves.
Consider a dog, kuôn in Greek, from which the name “Cynic” is derived. His needs for food, sex, urinating, warmth, etc. are few and easy to satisfy. He doesn’t dream of silk ties, foie gras or lavish villas. Neither grand ambitions nor feelings of shame plague him. In short: let the dog follow his nature unimpeded and he’s happy. The same holds for octopuses and elephants, sunflowers and chestnut trees. Sure, animals and plants sometimes wither or get eaten. But take humans out of the picture, the Cynics contend, and nature is a mostly happy place.
Julian traces their teachings back to two Apollonian oracles: “Know thyself” and the cryptic “Deface the currency.” The former refers to grasping human nature and its true needs, the latter to disregarding conventions that conflict with that nature’s prescriptions. We’ve come a long way: from punks of the ancient world (as they appear to others) to apostles of the god Apollo (as they see themselves).
The Cynics concede that we cannot rely on internal resources alone to be happy. Only the gods need nothing. But the Cynics come as close to the gods as humanly possible by pruning away all unnecessary wants through rigorous askêsis (training). To steel his body, “in summer [Diogenes] would roll around in hot sand” and “in winter he would hug statues covered in snow.” The big question is why we, unlike other animals, typically seek happiness in the wrong place. The Cynics reply that we use reason, the distinctive feature of human nature, badly: we get happiness wrong and follow the dictates of irrational desires. The muddleheaded thinking about happiness gives rise to communities held together by baseless values and conventions that we internalize as we grow up. Of these, some fuel desires for things we don’t need—wealth, power, fame, luxury. Others induce pointless shame.
The Cynics, then, advocate a kind of cultural detox. Civilization corrupts. (On this point they anticipate Rousseau’s verdict.) For them, the true punks are people like you and me who violate the norms of nature. Convert to cosmopolitanism, they exhort: follow nature’s universal laws, not random local conventions that fill your mind with useless guilt and cravings.
The eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean le Rond d’Alembert claimed that every age needs a Diogenes. If one were to show up today, would he convince us to give away all our possessions, move into a barrel and live like a dog? By making nature the arbiter of our way of life, the Cynics ushered in a moral revolution. Most ancient philosophers followed their lead—from Plato and Aristotle to the Stoics and Epicureans. In the Hellenistic period, philosophers looked into the cradle to study nature’s instructions in newborns whose behavior hadn’t yet been distorted through social influences. But critical theorists today—feminists, queer rights activists, anti-racists—are understandably suspicious of appeals to nature’s moral authority. Too often such appeals have been abused to justify chauvinist norms—patriarchal, heterosexual, racist—as if these were rooted in the natural order, not in oppressive power regimes. The Cynics would applaud their criticism, but they’d also warn them not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The problem with these chauvinist norms, they argue, isn’t the appeal to nature, but the misrepresentation of what nature prescribes. Take the case of animal rights: activists who claim that chimpanzees or elephants are entitled to the rights of a nonhuman person argue that the animals were deprived of these rights because their nature has been misrepresented in the past. Could Ai Weiwei criticize damaged life through art without an idea of what undamaged life looks like?
Note, however, that ancient philosophers who accept the authority of nature fiercely disagree on what that authority translates into. The baby in the cradle teaches one thing to Stoics, another to Epicureans and to Aristotelians nothing at all. Rather than yielding a moral doctrine written in stone, the Cynic turn to nature opens up space for debate and contestation. The Cynics themselves were able to ground a project of trenchant moral and social critique on their concept of human flourishing. Usher’s anthology brings that project to life and gives us a chance to assess its merits through Cynic voices from the fourth century BCE to the Christian era at a time when we’re scrambling to figure out the right way to live, engulfed by crises. The texts prove that the Cynics haven’t lost their power to unsettle—whether or not we join them in shouting “FUCK” at the conventions of our society.
Image credit: Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Photo courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. © 2022 Ai Weiwei